Saturday, October 24, 2015

Only the Lonely

This week, I read an interview with John Cacioppo (published in September 2012).  Cacioppo is the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor and the Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

Cacioppo works in the field of social neuroscience: basically, he's interested in what happens within and to our brains when we interact with the world around us.  In particular, Cacioppo became interested in what happens to the human brain when it doesn't interact with others--even though it might really, really want to. 

In short, Cacioppo analyzes the phenomenon of human loneliness.

I find his research really interesting because, as an introvert, I'm often perplexed by the fact that I generally don't seem to feel lonely in the same way that other people do. 

In fact, friends have pointed this feature of my personality out to me on more than one occasion: after a breakup with a significant other, one of my good friends commented, "Well, if he thinks he's going to stop by and get an ego boost because you're alone now, he's definitely barking up the wrong tree.  I honestly think you prefer to be alone."

When I worried that perhaps I made people feel that they were being troublesome or unwelcome in my home, my friend quickly clarified.  Apparently, I do very much enjoy the company of my friends and I'm very welcoming and inviting and clearly miss them when they're gone, but... I don't "need" people in my life, I "want" them in my life.  And this distinction is very clear in my day-to-day lifestyle.

Cacioppo's research investigated the threshold of loneliness and identified that the difference between an introvert and an extrovert can be mathematically noted.  Extroverts seem to need approximately three friends to feel connected, while introverts need only one.

Cacioppo's research has also demonstrated that loneliness is just as bad for human health as smoking and even worse than obesity because it seems to stem from neurobiological factors.  According to Cacioppo,
Lonely people are often completely unaware that their brain has gone on alert. An isolated rat put in an open field will walk around the walls and avoid the middle, which is called predator evasion. We find lonely people are hypersensitive to social threats.
This may also explain why, once people find "Lonely Street," they have a hard time relocating.  Because they don't realize that they are, in Cacioppo's words, "hypervigilant for social threats," they go through life in "self-protection mode."

If a lonely person interacts with someone whose behavior is "ambiguous" (i.e., they're not feeling the social love), the lonely person will tend to respond to that behavior as if it is a potential threat.  In effect, they will engage in a form of "predator evasion" that will result in two things: a high level of cortisol (the stress hormone) and a continued state of loneliness.

So what's the cure for loneliness?  Perhaps not surprisingly, it isn't simply finding another--or "the right"-- person since, chances are, a lonely person's default social setting will be to respond to others as potential social threats, regardless.

As Cacioppo points out, "much of what happens in loneliness is not conscious. Lonely people don’t know it, but they lose the ability to control their impulses, which also happens in isolated nonhuman animals. It really is a brain state."

The cure, then, is to gain greater awareness of one's own state of mind when lonely--to pay attention to how and why one responds to or interacts with others in particular ways.  Because, as research has shown, the issue isn't really one of quantity, it's a question of quality.  Cacioppo notes,
what’s important is having friends on whom you can count. Popular people and billionaires have more than enough friends, but they can be very lonely because they can’t trust anyone. 
Similarly, social networking sites, while better than nothing, are not entirely helpful if you're not using them to "leverage face-to-face interactions" but instead looking to things like Facebook or Twitter as a "substitute" for face-to-face encounters.  (Introverts often acknowledge that they prefer social networking precisely because it avoids the pressure of face-to-face interaction, but my guess is that this works for them because their inherent threshold for experiencing loneliness is higher.)

In the end, the key to alleviating loneliness seems to be a greater self-awareness in the face of one's personal interactions with others.  Through this increased self-awareness, Cacioppo suggests, an individual can experience a greater sense of control over the periods of isolation in his/her life.

Along with that self-awareness comes a willingness to perceive social interactions in a spirit of "fair competition" (to remember that others who are critical of you are often the ones who challenge you to become better or more successful) and positive interaction. 

Good times make for good friends, and this investment can prove to be a powerful inoculation against loneliness.   

Friday, October 16, 2015

Tis the Season

Don't worry: unlike Lowes, I'm not talking about Christmas at this point.  I mean my Birthday Season.

And so far, it's been delightful.  A nice mix of work and play (which is harden to attain than you might think).

On Monday, I went on a 7-mile hike, which was just the ticket because it meant that on Tuesday and Wednesday, I felt quite content with the idea of sitting at my computer and churning out a research proposal.  Which I did, and I'd like to think that because I had such a nice day off, I did a good job.

I've been swimming and biking and lamenting the fact that, in a few short weeks, it will probably be too cold to bike anymore.  Actually, given the weather forecast, I think it's going to be too cold to bike this weekend, in fact. 

I just finished reading Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan's book, Buried in the Sky (2012).  As the subtitle--which I didn't include here, because really, it's too long, guys--indicates, it's about the Sherpa climbers who were involved in the avalanche disaster on K2 in August, 2008.  Because typically, no one mentions the Sherpas involved in mountaineering--the focus is always on the western climbers.

One of the co-authors of the book was good friends with one of the Sherpa climbers who was killed, so she wanted to right that wrong and bring some attention to the lives and roles that they play in international mountaineering adventures. 

Unlike so many of the books that focus solely on the mountain itself--whether it's K2 or Everest--Zuckerman and Padoan look at the sociological and political context for the sport of mountaineering in Pakistan and the Karakorum mountains (where K2 is located).

And while I'm on the subject of good books, I don't think I mentioned--because I've been so remiss about blogging for the past month--that I went on a bit of a Neil Gaiman bender (seriously, I was slightly woozy at the end of 48 hours) and read Coraline (2002) and Neverwhere (1996). 

I loved them.  They were just so different and so imaginative--they appealed to the side of me that really likes gothic literature, I think.  And of course Gaiman's dark humor, in Neverwhere in particular, was always a treat.

I like the idea of an alternative world in Neverwhere so much that I'm hoping to maybe write about it at some point--the idea of situating a world underneath the city of London, in the networks of the sewers, is fascinating to me.

Which brings me to the other book I'm reading right now: Lee Jackson's Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth (2014).  It's about all of the various ways in which the Victorians had to cope with the... filth... of London.  So each chapter is organized around something kinda disgusting: dust (i.e., ashes), poop (aka "night soil"), soot, fog--well, you get the picture.

It's really interesting, actually.  (I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm not like the other girls.)

So as you can no doubt tell, it's shaped up to be a very nice birthday season with lots of reading and knitting and writing.  But rather than leave you with images of night soil and London filth, I'll finish with one final pic from my day off.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Made It (Mostly)

In a few short hours, it will be fall break.  Or, as I like to think of it, the official kick-off of my Birthday Season.

Unlike many, I enjoy celebrating a birthday.  A friend of mine once told me about a friend of his who celebrated, not just a birthday, but an entire "Birthday Season."

This meant that, at any time during the 4-6 weeks up to and after his birthday, he could celebrate-- on the pretext that it was his birthday.  It was the notion of a "Holiday Season" taken to its logical conclusion.

Needless to say, I loved this idea.  So, Birthday Season, here I come.

The Season can't arrive a minute too soon, because this week has offered very little to celebrate (except the fact that I got the first batch of papers graded).

On Tuesday night, I was barreling down the highway at a... brisk rate of speed... and I hit some kind of thing in the road.  It was outta nowhere, and there was just no avoiding it. 

Long story short, it blew the tire on the driver's side.

So there I was, facing my nightmare: alone and stuck on the side of the interstate at 10:30 p.m.

But it turned out okay: got a cop, then a tow truck to move the car somewhere the tire could be safely changed (no, I didn't do it myself--if I'm already paying for the tow, why would I?), had a nice new spare, all was quickly good again.

Except that we needed to put air in the tire.  But even this seemed like it would work out well, because a gas station with an air pump was only about 500 feet away.

Except that the pump didn't work.

Still, no problem, the tow-guy knew another place only about a mile or so away, and the tire was okay to drive on that distance.  Off we went.

That pump didn't work.

At this point, the only option was to put the car back on the flatbed and find a place with a reliable air pump.  To do this, we had to drive south for a bit.

Did I mention I was traveling north?  Yeah, I was.  So, we back-tracked.

As I pointed out to the tow-guy, this meant that I was going to get the chance to go back over the spot where I hit the piece of crap that totaled my tire.  Maybe I could hit it again.

I also pointed out, during a brief lull in the conversation, "I can't believe we're driving around looking for air right now."

He was good natured and good-humored, and I must say, I never expected to be quite so happy at the sight of a fully functioning air pump in my life.  That Shell gas station had a slightly heavenly aura around it, if I do say so myself.  But by that time, I was getting pretty tired, so I may have been hallucinating.

But as Shakespeare and I always say, "All's well that ends well."  I got in at 1:00 a.m., about 2 hours after my previous ETA, but I made it.

And in a few short hours, I will have really made it.  Let the celebration begin.